Belfast Telegraph

Claire McNeilly: Declan O'Neill sobbed in dock as mitigation pleas offered context of heinous act of mum's murder

Declan O’Neill in his role as a doctor
Declan O’Neill in his role as a doctor
Mr Justice Adrian Colton
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

There was a look of tearful resignation on his face as the sentence was read out.

Declan O'Neill, immaculately dressed in a dark grey suit, spotless white shirt and deep red tie, had already taken off his glasses and wiped his eyes with the right sleeve of his jacket.

He knew what was coming, of course, but Mr Justice Colton's weighty words, delivered in an otherwise soundless chamber, could not have failed to hit home one more time.

As the 29-year-old medic sobbed throughout Thursday's hearing - as he has done during previous court appearances - his dad and 84-year-old grandfather (the victim's estranged husband and father) looked on in silence from an almost empty public gallery.

This was a despicable crime that has stunned so many people here and beyond.

First, the heinous early morning murder of a highly respected, middle-aged mother-of-two at her elderly parents' home in Ardmore Avenue in Finaghy on October 21, 2017.

Second, the shocking realisation that Anne O'Neill's eldest child and only son had committed what the judge described as a "brutal, senseless and unnecessary" act.

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Third, and a sentiment eloquently expressed by Mr Justice Adrian Colton in sentencing the defendant to eight years in prison - indeed, arguably the most stupefying of all - was the revelation that the perpetrator was a doctor.

A man who had dedicated his life to improving those of others, who operated within the tenets and ethics of the Hippocratic Oath, and who, in normal circumstances, would have strained every sinew to save someone in a similar position to his late mother.

As we learned during a recent hearing, however, the circumstances which ultimately led to a denouement in Court 12 at Belfast's Laganside complex on Thursday were far from normal.

Murder victim Anne O’Neill with her son Dr Declan O’Neill
Murder victim Anne O’Neill with her son Dr Declan O’Neill

Mrs O'Neill, a retired district nurse, was, it must be stressed, the innocent victim of a callous, cruel and premeditated crime for which her son will spend several years behind bars.

She was also, however, someone with a very controlling, abusive and bullying personality who brought her children up in a home with no beds, bare walls and little furniture.

O'Neill looked up from the floor and straight ahead towards the judge for a few minutes as Mr Justice Colton told how neither the defendant nor his younger sister Claire were allowed to bring friends home as children.

He also told the court that O'Neill felt "shamed and humiliated" throughout his life by his overbearing mother, who ran up debts of £30,000 on his credit card and was openly appalled by her son's relationship with his male partner.

We also learned that a pre-sentence report had identified that O'Neill was "clearly struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his actions and repeatedly stated how much he missed his mother" who, it emerged in court, had a mental illness she refused to seek treatment for.

But a "unique and telling aspect" for the judge were the "compelling and moving" pleas for clemency from Mrs O'Neill's 83-year-old mother and her daughter - the defendant's grandmother and sister.

He was "timid and very kind natured", according to Claire.

"He had no life growing up and he is still a young man and deserves to have another chance in the world after he is released," his granny said in her grandson's defence.

"We are still able to travel to prison to see Declan, however, with our family health we do not know how long we will be able to do this."

PSNI forensic expert at the house where Ms O'Neill was found dead in 2017
PSNI forensic expert at the house where Ms O'Neill was found dead in 2017

Reacting to his granny's admission that she and her husband "are both suffering from stress and anxiety about what happened to Declan", the defendant removed his glasses and dried his tears on the sleeve of his right arm.

And it was this testimony that, apart from providing yet another shock twist to the tale, was clearly accepted by Mr Justice Colton as genuine mitigation.

Added to O'Neill's eventual guilty plea "to spare his family further anguish", the judge rendered the case "close to the borderline between murder and manslaughter".

Justification is a word rarely used in murder cases, but what Declan O'Neill went through over almost three decades at least provided some understanding of why he brought his own "murder kit" with him - containing a rope, a rubber face mask and a chisel - and brutally attacked his own mother in the back garden of his grandparents' south Belfast home.

There, he struck her repeatedly on the head with a heavy blunt object, pummelled the back of her head against the edge of the tiled steps, and thrust her face against the concrete path or patio.

O'Neill's father and grandfather gave no reaction as the eight-year tariff was handed down to the defendant shortly before midday.

The 702 days he has already spent in jail on remand will be deducted from his prison sentence, so he will be free aged 35.

As he was being led from the dock in handcuffs by prison officers to be taken back into custody, his walk was a little unsteady, as if the enormity of what he had done was sinking in, perhaps weighing him down.

Declan O'Neill will eventually leave prison, but the catastrophic events that put him there will never leave him.

Belfast Telegraph


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